JACKSON, Mississippi -- Leo Carney worries that bigger crowds and maskless diners could endanger workers at the Biloxi, Miss., seafood restaurant where he manages the kitchen. Maribel Cornejo, who earns $9.85 an hour as a McDonald's cook in Houston, can't afford to get sick and frets co-workers will become more lax about wearing masks, even though the company requires them.
As more jurisdictions join Texas, Mississippi and other states in lifting mask mandates and easing restrictions on businesses, many essential workers -- including bartenders, restaurant servers and retail workers -- are relieved by changes that might help the economy but also concerned they could make them less safe amid a pandemic that health experts warn is far from over.
Many business owners on the Mississippi Gulf Coast were glad Gov. Tate Reeves decided to eliminate mask requirements, limits on seating in restaurants and most other restrictions. "But the workers themselves ... especially ones that have preexisting conditions, they're scared right now," Carney said.
"This just puts us back in a situation where we're on the front lines, under the gun again," said Carney, who sees Black Mississippians facing the greatest risks from the decision that took effect Wednesday. Covid-19 has disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic people in the United States, and many Gulf Coast restaurants have a significant number of Black employees.
Public health experts tracking the trajectory of more-contagious virus variants have warned that lifting restrictions too soon could lead to another lethal wave of infections. Although vaccination drives are accelerating as drug manufacturers ramp up production, many essential workers are not yet eligible for vaccines in Mississippi and other states.
Alabama's state health officer Friday advised residents to keep following standard infection-prevention recommendations even though the governor is letting the state's mask mandate expire next month. "There is nothing magical about the date of April 9. We don't want the public to think that's the day we all stop taking precautions," Scott Harris said.
The governors of Iowa, Montana and North Dakota also have ended mask requirements or plan to suspend them soon. The governor of South Carolina on Friday lifted an executive order requiring face coverings in government office buildings and restaurants, leaving it up to state administrators and restaurant operators to develop their own guidelines.
Governors in several other states, including Michigan and Louisiana, eased the operating limits for bars, restaurants and other businesses in recent days.
The National Retail Federation, the largest retail trade association in the U.S., issued a statement Wednesday encouraging shoppers to wear masks. Some chains, including Target and supermarket operator Albertson's, plan to continue requiring them for both customers and workers.
Texas Retailers Association President and CEO George Kelemen said he thinks many members will continue to require workers -- but not necessarily customers -- to wear masks and other protective gear. "Retailers know their customers best," he said.
McDonald's cook Cornejo, 43, said the end of Texas' mask mandate next week alarms her because several of her co-workers already were lax about keeping their faces covered. She said co-workers she has asked to pull their masks back over their noses politely acquiesced, but not always for long.
"There are just different attitudes," said Cornejo, whose 19-year-old son began working as a cashier at the same restaurant to help pay the family's bills. "Some say it's just too difficult to keep it on for eight hours, especially when it gets hot."
'DO THE RIGHT THING'
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, encouraged Americans to "do the right thing" by continuing to abide by recommendations for routine mask use and social distancing -- even if their states lift restrictions.
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said individuals who wear masks still risk infection from unmasked shoppers and diners. He called Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to lift restrictions starting Wednesday "entirely too soon and entirely too carefree."
While deaths and new confirmed cases have plummeted from their January peaks nationwide, they're still running at high levels, while outbreak indicators in some states have risen in recent weeks.
Workers in cities that still have mask mandates or jobs at businesses that maintain their own virus-prevention rules anticipate defiance from customers emboldened by their governors' actions and weary of taking precautions.
Molly Brooks, 25, a barista at a Farmers Branch, Texas, coffee shop, said she has regularly dealt with customers who walked out or bullied her and her colleagues when they were asked to wear a mask. Brooks worries how they're going to enforce the rule, which the coffee shop plans to keep in place, now that Texas' governor lifted the statewide mask mandate.
"We are gearing up for the emotional toll that this is going to take," said the 25-year-old, who started working for the coffee shop in November while looking for a job in education. "The people who don't want to wear them are still going to fight ... and now they are going to have even more ammunition."
Square Books in Oxford, Miss., home of the University of Mississippi, will require masks and allow only eight customers at a time. Although General Manager Lyn Roberts believes the rules will make many customers feel safe, employee Paul Fyke said he observed a change in Oxford almost as soon as the Board of Aldermen chose to follow the governor's lead and did away with the mask mandate.
"I mean, really, even on the drive home, you can kind of already see there were places where, for a lot of people, it was triumph," he said Thursday, the day after the city's mask requirement ended. "They were happy to be removing them."
Still, some workers are cautiously hopeful that fewer restrictions will bring more customers, tips and job security after a year short on all three.
In San Francisco, where the mayor last week announced the return of indoor dining and the reopening of movie theaters and gyms, Dino Keres had no qualms about serving drinks to customers bellying up to the bar in Sam's Grill.
That's partly because he was about to get his second vaccine dose, but also because nobody on staff was infected when indoor dining was briefly permitted last fall. What's more, masks are required unless people are eating, and indoor seating is limited to 25% of capacity.
"We have already went through this once, and now the timing feels about right to try it again," Keres said Thursday.
Ro Hart, an assistant general manager and hostess at Tony's Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, said the return of indoor dining in the city provoked a mixture of joy and anxiety.
"We are happy to be bringing in more revenue, but we are a little nervous too, because we have to be more stringent about making sure everyone keeps their masks on when they're not eating," Hart said, adding that she would be far more worried if San Francisco didn't require masks.
"We feel for our brothers and sisters at all those restaurants in Texas," she said.
VARIANT ON RISE?
The CDC has been warning about it since January: A more contagious and possibly deadlier variant of the coronavirus, first found in Britain, is likely to become predominant in the United States, perhaps leading to a wrenching surge in cases and deaths.
The first part of that warning seems to be coming true: The variant, known as B.1.1.7, is doubling its share of all new U.S. cases about every 10 days.
But the second part is harder to make out, at least so far. The steep fall in new cases from the January peak halted in mid-February, but the trend since then has been roughly steady or only slightly downward, rather than a feared "fourth wave."
Experts are not sure why. The accelerating pace of vaccinations and the remaining virus-control measures in much of the country might be balancing out the spread of the more-contagious variant, so that total cases neither rise nor fall very much. But it is difficult to know how long that equilibrium might last, or whether the next clear turn in the trend will be up or down.
The risk of a surge has by no means passed, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser on covid-19, warned Sunday.
The nation was averaging about 60,000 new cases a day as of Saturday, according to a New York Times database. That is the lowest seven-day average since October and about 10% below the average Feb. 21, when the steep decline slowed. Still, the figure is close to the peak level of the surge last summer. Death reports are also falling but remain high, regularly topping 2,000 a day.
In an interview Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation," Fauci said that over the past week and a half, the decline in cases had stalled.
"We're plateauing at quite a high level -- 60 to 70,000 new infections per day is quite high," he said.
This trend is particularly worrisome, he said, because in the United States over the past year, when the daily level of new infections plateaued at a high level, surges followed. And recently in Europe, infection levels were declining, then plateaued and "over the last week or so, they've had about a 9% increase in cases," Fauci said.
Experts say they need more data to understand why the United States has not yet seen a surge in cases as the fearsome B.1.1.7 variant has spread so rapidly, already accounting for more than one-fifth of new cases.
The best way to prevent further spread is to "get people vaccinated as quickly and as expeditiously as possible and, above all, maintain the public health measures that we talk about so often: the masking, the physical distancing and the avoiding of congregate settings, particularly indoors," Fauci said. "That's what you can do to prevent the spread of a worrisome variant."
Decisions by two Republican governors to remove all restrictions in their states have reignited the political debate on the pandemic response, elevating it as a campaign issue this year and in 2022.
Republican Govs. Abbott of Texas and Reeves of Mississippi announced last week they're eliminating mask mandates and allowing businesses to reopen at full capacity, setting expectations for other GOP-led states to follow suit.
The moves drew dire warnings from health officials and Democrats that they risk igniting another spike in cases and deaths and stood in stark contrast to Biden's cautious approach to getting the U.S. back to normalcy.
Yet the governors continue to follow the path of former President Donald Trump, who downplayed the virus from the outset, helped stoke opposition to mask-wearing, and made the pandemic a partisan issue.
Now, politicians are using reopening plans to show where their priorities lie as they seek a balance between public health and economic recovery.
"This is going to be the first time the public gets to definitively speak on the issue of how did you handle it, how did you do," former New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie said of elections to be held in the waning days of the pandemic. "No matter whether you're the incumbent or the challenger, there's going to be a lot of discussion about it."
Republicans such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have risen to GOP prominence in part by opposing mandates as an assault on personal liberties and businesses.
Most Democratic governors are easing restrictions more cautiously and generally in line with CDC guidelines. But they too face a political risk: Wait too long to lift mandates as more Americans get vaccinated and face criticism for hurting small businesses, restricting freedom unnecessarily and caving in to teachers unions by not reopening schools more quickly.
Reeves said livelihoods must be protected as well as lives, and that declining levels of hospitalizations and critical cases in his state don't warrant either maintaining government mandates or the criticism from health officials and Democrats.
"Unlike President Biden, who wants to insult Americans and insult Mississippians, I actually trust Mississippians to make good decisions," Reeves said on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday. "The numbers don't justify government interaction at the levels that we're seeing in other states."
Reeves also said he would "strongly encourage" state residents to continue to wear masks.
In Texas, critics said Abbott's move was an effort to distract people from the destruction caused by widespread power failures during a rare freeze in his state that killed more than 70 people in February. But with vaccinations still months from completion, his aggressive reopening sparked complaints statewide. Mandate or not, many businesses in Texas continue to operate with mask and social distancing requirements.
Whatever politicians are doing, most Americans are still wearing masks. About 77% say they always wear one outside the home, according to survey data as of Feb. 22 provided by the Institute for Health Metrics and Analysis.
In Noem's South Dakota and Republican-leaning Wyoming, it's 56% and 53%, respectively, the lowest in the country. About 73% of Floridians and 77% in Texas mask up. And it's above 80% in much of the Democratic-heavy Northeast and California, the surveys show.
Information for this article was contributed by Leah Willingham, Michael Liedtke, Anne D'Innocenzio, Alexandra Olson, Joseph Pisani, David Koenig, Dee-Ann Durbin and Tammy Webber of The Associated Press; by Ron DePasquale, Allyson Waller, Lauren Leatherby, Scott Reinhard and Pam Belluck of The New York Times; and by Mark Niquette and Jonathan Levin of Bloomberg News (TNS).